Like the man he plays in the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, R. Marcos Taylor didn't set out to be an actor. The six-foot-three-inch, 300-pound stunt man began acting relatively recently, and playing Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight is far and away his biggest role yet. Knight, too, didn't set out to be a rap producer — he attended college on a football scholarship, but when he was not drafted to the NFL, he began working as a body guard. The resemblance between Taylor and Knight is uncanny (as are so many of the casting choices for the film), and might lead audiences to wonder, who is this man who plays Suge Knight in Compton?
Taylor has done stunts for the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, White Collar, Blue Bloods, and Sons of Anarchy. But his performance in Straight Outta Compton has to some extent been overshadowed by the exploits of the man he plays. Knight was charged with murder and attempted murder in a hit-and-run in February, and is scheduled to appear in court in mid-September on those charges. But his reputation as something of a thug, and his intimidating physical presence, belie the genius acts he signed as the CEO of Death Row Records. His more recent run-ins with the law have drawn far more attention, but he was responsible for some of the most memorable and influential west-coast rap acts of the early ’90s.
After Ice Cube's departure from N.W.A., the group splintered into solo acts. Former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre joined forces with Suge Knight and The D.O.C. to form a new record label, which they christened Death Row Records. From there, they signed artists in a frenzy, from the label's inception in 1991 to Knight's arrest in 1996, after which point the label floundered and eventually went bankrupt. In those five years, many of west-coast rap's pioneers flocked to Death Row, such as:
1. Dr. Dre
Co-founder of the label, Dre also released his solo material under the label's auspices, including The Chronic.
2. Snoop Dogg
When Snoop "Doggy" Dogg, as he was then known, first came onto the scene in the early ’90s, he was known as something of a protege of Dre (he was featured on the older rapper's first solo single, "Deep Cover"). He soon outpaced his mentor; his debut Doggystyle, which came out in 1993 and includes "Gin and Juice," achieved record sales beyond The Chronic.
3. Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur — 2Pac — makes a brief appearance in Straight Outta Compton, and he would return to the forefront of the west-coast rap scene after the film's ending. 2Pac had perhaps as much influence as N.W.A. themselves, and he cut a controversial figure in the rap world. His highly publicized murder remains unsolved. Knight, tragically, was driving the car in which Shakur was shot the night of his death, according to ABC News.
4. M.C. Hammer
Hammer signed to Death Row pretty late in the game — not until 1995, and even then, he didn't release his album via the label. He appeared on tracks alongside some of Death Row's stars, and had a particularly close relationship with Tupac Shakur (he included several 2Pac-penned tracks on his 1999 album Family Affair). Hammer left the label after Shakur's death in 1996.
5. The D.O.C.
One of the creative minds behind N.W.A., The D.O.C. (played by Marlon Yates, Jr. in Straight Outta Compton) was also one of the forces in the creation of Death Row. Unfortunately, he parted ways with the label in 1995 due to creative differences.
6. Maybe Even Kendrick Lamar?
Suge Knight told BET that artists out of Compton are still, at their core, Death Row artists. He cited Kendrick Lamar as one such rapper — "Kendrick know, anybody from Compton, that’s pretty much saying they’re a Death Row artist," he said. "They mimicked their stuff off of the blueprint I laid down." It might be an egotistical claim, but west coast rap of the ’90s undoubtedly left its mark on Lamar's style — the "gangsta rap" style pioneered by N.W.A. can still be heard in Lamar's music, albeit with a more reflexive and culturally critical undertone.
This is not to glorify Suge Knight — he's a flawed human, and Straight Outta Compton highlights this. But his legacy is incredible. He provided a forum for revolutionary young rap artists to cultivate their style and flourish under his business-minded eye.